Red Pen Tidbits 8: Commonly Confused Words

Welcome back to Red Pen Tidbits (click for a full table of contents)! How has your practice with coordinating conjunctions gone? I hope it was wonderful!

This week, we’re looking into four pairs of commonly confused words. Sometimes it helps to have some way to remember them, so I’ll offer up mnemonic devices when I can!

What exactly are we talking about here?

We are talking about homophones (or almost homophones depending on you dialect). Homophones are words that sound alike, but they are spelled differently and have different meanings.

As you can see by the diagram below, there are many different ways to go about commonly confused words. Feel free to branch out from the ones we go over!

Image result for homophone
Image from here

We could go on and on with homophones, but we’ll keep it simple (this is a tidbit after all). Most of them boil down to one major difference: part of speech.

You guessed it! We’re taking this all the way back to nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on! Let’s take a look at four of the ones I see the most often.

1. Affect vs. Effect


Image result for raven affect effect

Oh! Now it makes sense. This is the best mnemonic I have found for affect vs. effect. In everyday language, these two words have two separate uses:

Affect is a verb: to produce a change.

Effect is a noun: the consequence of a change.

*TIP: If you get stuck, try substituting a verb form of “to influence” or the noun “consequence” to see which one fits best. If “influence” fits, then use affect. If “consequence” fits, then use effect.

  • The lack of rain affected (influenced) the harvest.
  • Creativity affects (influences) our daily lives when we actually take the time to have fun.
  • I’m thankful that this new medicine doesn’t have any side effects (consequences).
  • The effects (consequences) of the potion aren’t reversible.

The Exception: Sometimes, ‘effect’ can be used as a verb if you are meaning “to produce an effect” or “to accomplish” (must be used with an object).
The principal effected (accomplished) a change to the school dress code.

2. Advise vs. Advice

I don’t know about you, but with social media in full swing, I see these two words mixed up all the time.

Advise is a verb: to give counsel or offer an opinion.

Advice is a noun: an opinion or recommendation.

*TIP: If you get stuck, try thinking of whether you’re performing a “service” for someone or whether you’re simply being a “consultation.” Service points you toward advise with an s, and Consultation points you toward advice with a c.

  • I need advise about how to train my dog. (service)
  • Will you advise me on the next steps for this project? (service)
  • I took your advice, and now my dog is house trained! (consultation)
  • Even though I asked for your advice, I don’t think I’ll follow it. (consultation)
Image result for advice advise
Image from here

3. Stationary vs. Stationery

This one isn’t super common, but I do see it. Have you seen this one lately?

Stationary is an adjective: standing still.

Stationery is a noun: writing materials.

*TIP: If you get stuck, try thinking “anchored” or “envelope.” If you’re talking about someone being “anchored” to the location, then Stationary with an fits. If you’re talking about the materials that could be used to send a letter in an “envelope,” then Stationery with an e fits.

  • The guard was stationary during his entire shift. (anchored)
  • I wanted to move, but the teacher said I had to remain stationary for my reward. (anchored)
  • I can’t wait to write to my pen pal on my new stationery(envelope)
  • I set up the stationery at my desk. (envelope)
Image result for stationary vs stationery
Image from here

4. Versus vs. Verses

Versus is a preposition: against or in contrast to.

Verses is a noun: (plural of verse) lines of a poem, song, or Bible verse.

*TIP: If you get stuck, try asking if it’s “us against them” or simply a “extra” part of a piece of writing. “Us against them” leads to Versus with a u. An “Extra” part leads to Verses with an e.

  • For the most part, we’ll be looking at nouns versus pronouns. (us against them)
  • It was a battle of cake versus ice cream to see which one would be gone first. (us against them)
  • He added several more verses to his poem today. (extra part)
  • We will be reading aloud verses 10 through 20. (extra part)
Image result for versus verses
Image from here


I could go on and on with this topic, but I’ll stop there. Here’s a visual of several more, and I’ll provide some links in the resources section for others.

Image result for commonly confused words


Take out your trusty Writer’s Notebook, and open to the next blank page. Try out a few sentences using different homophones! You don’t have to use the ones I’ve listed, so feel free to try any of the ones that give you trouble.

Let me know how it goes in the comments below! I’d also love to hear your tricks for the ones that I do give you the most trouble. Share your secrets in the comments below.

Coming up next…

I hope you’re ready for our next Red Pen Tidbit (August 16) about verb tenses (by request from Erika Beebe)! It will be out a few days early, too.

Image result for verb tenses cartoon
Image from here

Share with me in the comments below about your most frustrating grammar/usage errors. I will gladly address them in the future!


If you need a bit more help after this tidbit, then please check out these other helpful sites.

2 thoughts on “Red Pen Tidbits 8: Commonly Confused Words

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